Wednesday, November 27, 2013

YA # 3 - Identity

I didn't get a chance to write last weekend, with how busy I've been prepping for Into the Woods, my school's upcoming musical.  Now it is Thanksgiving break, so have some time.  I am trying to keep these weekly, or close to that.

As a drama teacher, identity is an issue I deal with every day.  Perhaps more so in my classes than in others, students are constantly eager to try on new identities, and experiment with who they are.  I have always found it interesting that a student who is the shyest student in one class can be a class clown in another.  I think many students like to adopt different personalities and see how they work, or which attitudes gain the reaction they want.

For example, one of my students came to class one day with a new nose piercing, matching the nose ring of a friend of hers.  Did the kid want the nose ring, or was it just to fit in?  Another student I dealt with was excited and talkative at the beginning of class (when she was in control), but as soon as class began and I asked her some questions she looked like she was half asleep and refused to say a word.

The best example of identity search that I've seen came at one of my former schools.  One of my lowest performing students was a constant trial.  He loved attention, was a class clown, and was constantly being disciplined for behavior issues.  This young man loved to show off to his friends, and his group was very strongly opposed to school or rules.  I was shocked when he auditioned for the play.

During rehearsals, I didn't recognize the student.  He was shy, never spoke out of turn, and exceedingly polite.  As the play progressed, his grades started to improve.  It wasn't until a speech he gave at closing night, when I first learned his troubled story.  He had been expelled from an earlier school, had spent time in jail, and had been hanging with a rough crowd.  In drama, he said, for the first time, he got all the attention he could ask for, without any punishment.  I'm happy to report that he turned his life around, and graduated shortly after this took place.  In this scenario, it was almost as if trying on a new identity, both in the course of acting as someone else, and in trying a new situation with new peers, truly changed his life.

As I write, I think about my characters' identity.  It's interesting to note how much time authors devote to keeping a character's identity "consistent"- when our own personalities and identities can shift from situation to situation- especially in situations young adults encounter as they grow.  Perhaps no identity is truly static, but merely a reflection of its surroundings.    

Sunday, November 17, 2013

YA # 2 - Crises

In my second YA "Author" blog- I talk about crises, and how students' deal with them.  I do invite new readers to check some of my older blog entries, including my travel blog entries.

Today Rachel and I visited a holiday ice sculpture exhibit.  The manger scene is pictured above.  The entire exhibit was 8 degrees below Fahrenheit, and we were given parkas to borrow as part of our entry fee.  Ice needs help staying cool.  Many times, kids don't.  The more I work with children, the more I am amazed at their ability to stay calm in any crisis.

Students have a lot to deal with on a daily basis.  With school, family, after-school jobs, and other stresses constantly mounting, there is a real and valid question about what makes a "crisis".  In my last entry I noted how sometimes immature students seemed to have a "crisis" every week.  Yet, like all authors, when I start to picture my protagonist, I know that in order for the story to be interesting, she has to face some truly life-altering crises.  In my upcoming novel School of Deaths, Suzie is forced out of her home, physically assaulted, and suffers endless trials in a new environment where she is the only girl.  She encounters crises that many adults, including myself, would find totally overwhelming, but she often remains calm, at least on the surface.  This is what I've seen in my own students time and time again.

I've watched students as their parents got divorced.  I've seen students who lost a sibling to suicide.  For three years I taught in the homes of students too sick to attend school, many with terminal illnesses.  It was almost always the families who suffered the most, while the student approached their remaining time with a simple calm acknowledgement that this was their life.

This isn't to say that I haven't seen flare ups.  I have.  I've seen anger and frustration, and of course, I am just one teacher- and don't see everything that goes on in a students' life.  However, as I watch students today, in our media-soaked world, I wonder about how they process trauma and how they deal with it at all.

The most poignant and terrifying example of crisis I've seen and experienced occurred about two months ago.  As a teacher, in the back of my mind, far in the depths of that little unconscious area I don't want to acknowledge, are the realizations that events like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and dozens of other school shootings are both a reality and a daily possibility.

I was in a rehearsal for our musical.  I was in charge of a dozen students in my classroom, and an additional 50 students who were working in the auditorium and the outside area behind the theatre.  It was our first day using any space outside, since we wanted platforms to dry in the sun.  I was in my classroom with the cast.

A student burst into my room, one of my kids from the auditorium, and said "Mr. M, there's a gun threat outside."  I instantly put my dozen kid into lockdown mode, then with my heart pounding I ran to the auditorium.  They'd already closed the outside door, so we quickly locked down the remaining ten doors, and I sat huddled with the students on a ramp, not knowing what was going on for fifteen minutes.  Most frightening of all was the knowledge that a dozen other kids were huddled in the darkened and locked back of my classroom.  As we sat here huddled in silence, someone started banging on one of the auditorium doors.  Every bang made my heart skip a beat.  Finally the banging stopped.  After the fifteen minutes, a janitor came in and told us it was over.  It was without a doubt the most frightening experience of my life.

We found out after the event that a girl had called her boyfriend (not a student) to come and shoot some of the members of the football team.  Whether or not there was ever an actual gun is still unclear (the authorities deny it), though I have five unrelated students in sports clubs who say that they saw one.  The sports teams all evacuated, and we went into lockdown, but the suspects fled.  I still do not know who banged on the auditorium doors.

Half an hour after this event had ended, I had a scheduled "drama parents' night".  It was a meeting to gain more support for parents in Drama.  I was a mess.  I was shaking, could barely talk, and had just got off the phone with Rachel (my fiancee).  I had been so scared.  It was my students who really stood out.  During the event they remained completely calm.  After it was over, they were laughing and smiling, as if nothing at all had happened.  I asked one girl how she could be so calm, and she said "It's over now- what's the point of thinking about it?  I just want some pizza."

That remark seemed so out of place at the time, yet to a teenager who can shoot strangers every night in video games, or watch the news about yet another actual shooting, maybe "crisis" means something different than it does to an adult....  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

YA Age

Age- My first Author Blog

Several others at my publishing house have suggested that I start blogging about being a writer- particularly a writer who is also a high school teacher.  Since I have taken my new job as a full-time high school drama teacher, one thing I've been noticing a lot of is the difference between physical and emotional ages.

As a drama teacher, I undoubtedly see more "drama" (the bad kind) than many academic teachers.  I ask kids to constantly push their boundaries, and sometimes this results in me seeing sides to them I wouldn't necessarily choose to see.  While any dedicated teacher will acknowledge that there is a certain level of counseling, as well as a certain level of parenting, involved with teaching- something about being in a windowless building for over ten hours a day, five days a week, with several of my more dedicated students, brings their "ages" into a very sharp focus.

I saw a play Friday that featured a 13-year-old character unwittingly seeing a photo of lynching victims and not knowing what they were.  Even after looking them up on the internet, she had no clue what the pictures were in reference to.  To me, this was an unbelievable act.  Kids are smart.  Even my less-than stellar students, who struggle with some basic knowledge,are able to find information on the internet in minutes, and analyze and understand almost anything thrown at them.  What kids really lack, in many instances, is not knowledge, but emotional maturity.

I have one senior who is incredibly mature.  She is able to complete any task I give her, and then on her own come up with literally dozens more to do.  She is a natural leader and manages others well.  I was shocked to learn that she is only 16 years old.  On the other hand, I have 18-year-olds who have less maturity than the middle schoolers I use to teach.  Three of my senior girls, each 18 years old, had successive meltdowns, one meltdown a week, earlier this year.  These meltdowns were triggered by things such as claiming to have too much homework.  Without emotional maturity, little issues get blown into crises of phenomenal size, and there is no avoiding the snowball of a crisis once it's begun.  Girls tend to be more visibly mature or immature, whereas boys tend to act less mature than they are to attract girls' attention.  Ironically, the more attention sought in high school, the less mature the behavior

I am not a psychologist or even a counselor.  Yet as an author and observer, I feel it is important to think about the emotional age of a character.  My protagonist is 13.  She is smart, but as the novel progresses, her emotional maturity is constantly tested, and as a result she "ages" quickly.  I wrote my novel before teaching full-time, and as I have been working I've been thinking more about Suzie (my protagonist).  Are her actions believable?  Although physically 13, what is her "emotional age"?  These are questions I continue to ponder throughout the editing phase.